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CNN Today

Customs Discovers Tunnel Used for Drug Smuggling in Arizona

Aired February 27, 2001 - 4:29 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Federal agents today discovered what they are calling a drug tunnel near the Arizona-Mexico border, and in it they found millions of dollars worth of cocaine. The tunnel runs from a house in Nogales to the city's sewer system -- houses about 3/4 of a mile from the border.

Joining us now on the telephone line from El Paso, Texas: Rog Maier of the U.S. Customs Service. Thanks for being with us, sir.

Can you describe this tunnel? We've seen some of the pictures of it, but describe it to us.

ROGER MAIER, U.S. CUSTOMS: Certainly. The actual part of the tunnel that was constructed through the earth is much like an animal burrow running approximately 25 feet from an existing sewer into the home. There was some crude lighting in there but this is not a very advanced form of engineering at all. It's a real crude type of tunnel, similar to what an animal would burrow.

CHEN: Or something like a prisoner -- I mean, you would imagine a prisoner digging out of prison from the pictures that we're seeing here. How far underground are we talking about?

MAIER: This is only a few feet underground. At the most, six feet, and certainly closer as it approached the home.

CHEN: Is this something, like an adult man could stand up inside of this thing?

MAIER: No, someone would actually have to crawl through it or possibly tie the drugs to a sack and then have it pulled through the tunnel.

CHEN: Now, we're seeing a picture here of some of the bricks, we believe, of cocaine. Estimated wholesale value of $6.5 million in bricks found inside.

MAIER: Yes...

CHEN: Lined up? Piled up? What?

MAIER: 198 bricks were found in the home, leading us to believe that this was an active tunnel, still being used very recently. Most drug organizations would not allow more than 800 pounds of cocaine to be sitting unattended for a long period. Once they get it into the country they do try to move it quickly to the cities in inner America.

CHEN: Now, I mean, how do they do this? Is it clear that somebody just hand-dug this, hand-shoveled this?

MAIER: That's what it appears and that's what the history has been in Nogales. This is the sixth time since 1995 that authorities like customs have found a drug tunnel in Nogales.

There is a wash -- a drainage ditch that ruins underneath Nogales, Arizona, running directly into Nogales in Northern Mexico. Smugglers use this covered drainage ditch to bring the drugs into the country, then they go into these side sewers. And from those sewers, they actually dig, physically dig, into homes and businesses.

As I said, this is the sixth time that Customs has been involved in this type of a seizure in Arizona in the Nogales area.

CHEN: Did you all get a tip on this? Is that how you knew it was there?

MAIER: Well, it was part of an ongoing investigation. Our agents, Customs special agents, had been working for a time, and Monday they acted upon the case and tried to actually do a knock-and- search, but there was no one home. But the physical evidence indicated that there was smuggling activity occurring.

They were able to obtain a federal search warrant and executed the warrant Monday night, making a substantial seizure. And this is a big seizure for Customs. Last year in Arizona we seized about 4,800 pounds of cocaine, so more than 800 in one shot is a pretty good -- pretty good day's work for Customs.

CHEN: I need a quick answer from you here on this. All due respect, if it was this easy for this to be done, if they've done it so many times before, isn't there a possibility that there are lot of other holes, like Swiss cheese, under your border there?

MAIER: Well, that is a possibility and we're certainly pursuing that possibility aggressively. And, of course, we're always asking the public to let us know if they see any unusual activity because if something weird is going at their neighbor's home, we'd like to know about it.

CHEN: Or underneath your neighbor's home.

MAIER: Or underneath, exactly.

CHEN: Roger Maier of the U.S. Customs Service. That would be your tax dollars at work.

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